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Friday, September 26, 2008

Two new studies suggest global warming will challenge Florida’s economy and coastline

MIAMI – Sept. 25, 2008 – The rising sea may not swallow Florida quite as quickly as experts previously predicted, suggests a Florida State University study released Wednesday.

But before firing off told-ya-so e-mails to Al Gore, consider that under FSU’s admittedly low-ball estimates, waves could still lap over 5,400-plus acres of Miami-Dade County real estate worth $1.4 billion in a little more than two decades.

By 2080 – with a one-foot sea rise that is half an international climate panel’s estimate – the acreage awash in Miami-Dade could roughly triple, and losses would quintuple to $6.7 billion.

And that doesn’t count the costs of suddenly salty drinking water or more frequent and destructive flooding from hurricane-driven surge.

The FSU study, and a companion study from Florida Atlantic University, argue that state leaders will have to make sweeping, potentially expensive, changes to everything from building codes to transportation planning to head off catastrophic damage to the environment and economy.

“We’re not going to be able, practically speaking, to escape this issue,” said Jim Murley, director of FAU’s Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions and leader of that school’s study. “We have some tough decisions ahead.”

The studies, funded by $50,000 grants from the National Commission on Energy Policy, are intended to help lawmakers develop comprehensive climate-change policies advocated by Gov. Charlie Crist.

FSU’s analysis focused on six counties, including Miami-Dade and Monroe, but previous studies show Broward and Palm Beach counties and the state’s entire eroding coastline face similar threats.

Julie Harrington, director of FSU’s Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis, and Todd Walton Jr., director of the school’s Beaches and Shores Resource Center, estimated a potentially less severe rise than previously forecast by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, known as the IPCC.

The FSU estimate, extrapolated from actual rise recorded over 50 years of tidal gauge readings, predicts sea level climbing 0.23 to 0.29 foot by 2030, and 0.83 foot to 1.13 feet by 2080. The 2001 IPCC estimate, an oft-cited benchmark based on computer models that project melting glaciers will speed things up, forecasts up to a half-foot by 2030 and 2.13 feet by 2080.

That extra foot of water, the FSU study says, could cover 26,500 acres of Miami-Dade worth $12.3 billion.

And some scientists consider even the IPCC’s figures an underestimate. Earlier this year, the Miami-Dade County Climate Change Task Force produced a report predicting a 1.5-foot rise in 50 years, and three to five feet by century’s end – levels that would have tides washing daily into downtown Miami, South Beach and Hollywood.

Harrington acknowledges the FSU study may be conservative, but says the findings underscore that even under the most optimistic scenarios, impacts “will be substantial, persistent and long-term.”

Beyond simply inundating waterfront land, the rise would increase damage from storm surge – adding, the study estimates, $500 million to the $2.5 billion in damage Hurricane Wilma inflicted on Miami-Dade.

The study also suggests the seven-foot surge Wilma churned up would become far more frequent – from once every 76 years to once every five years if sea level rises two feet.

FAU’s report suggests an array of potential policy changes – tougher building codes, purchases of at-risk coastal land, development of cleaner energy sources, strengthened growth-management laws, increased science funding, appointment of a state climate change czar.

The study doesn’t project costs to taxpayers but suggests a range of possibilities for paying what could easily be a multibillion-dollar bill – from tapping the profits of insurance firms and state pension funds to selling credits in any future global market for natural areas that serve as “carbon sinks,” meaning they absorb greenhouse gases.

Given the state’s sluggish economy and high stakes, Murley said Florida will have to carefully weigh restrictions on future development, which he likened to an engine driving a slow-moving steamship.

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